December 9, 2021 |

Digging The Deepest Wells

One of the things I love to do in New York is walk the city streets with Uriel, our 2-year old. His natural ebullience as he runs, jumps and dances down the sidewalk make me and lots of passers-by smile. Every sidewalk grate, bicycle stand, standpipe and set of steps is an opportunity for some make-believe game or adventure and every scaffolding bar is a perfect height for swinging from. It is great fun to watch him get distracted and entranced by each new item of interest along the way. It does take some time to make progress with him and there are times when I am impatient and keep shooing him down the street or buckling him, to his squirming displeasure, into his stroller. But my favorite times are when we just walk along, singing the ABC's (or ay-yay-yay Shabbos, his 2 favorite songs right now) and exploring.

One of Uriel's favorite activities is to stop at those little plastic free-magazine boxes and open them up. When he first started doing it, I wondered why he never took out any magazines or newspapers. He would just open up the box, stick his head deep into it, pretend to scoopsomething out of it and then walk away. At some point, Shira and I realized that he was taking imaginary objects - he calls them "magicals" - out of them, that the periodical boxes were special repositories of little magical balls that he could acquire on his journeys. Sometimes, he shares his magicals with me, sometimes he eats them, sometimes he puts them in the stroller or throws them away or up in the air. They are now common companions on our city walks and, in a certain way, I have even come to envy Uri his ability to find 'magicals' wherever he goes.

There is something almost mystical about Uriel's magicals as well. The kabbala teaches a profound idea that all of reality is suffused with holiness on a sort of spiritual molecular level. These "sparks" of holiness are not detachable or identifiable separately from the object itself, but inhere within it. Every object has within it, a "spark" (nitzotz) of holiness, waiting to be redeemed. Every object has a "magical" inside of it.

It is possible, using spiritual means, to separate and "lift up" these sparks, to redeem them and return them to their point of origin. But it is not easy. One first has to be able to identify or locate where the spark is and then find the way to release it. A mystical world-view (which cannot be fully explained in one short essay), describes the divine origin of these sparks (the original 'light' of God), the challenges in finding them (evil and brokenness in the world) and the methods by which they can be isolated and released (fulfilling mitzvot to repair the world.)

One way of releasing nitzotzot might be by creating something new, such as taking a hunk of metal and making beautiful Shabbat candlesticks out of it, taking it from the potential to the actual. The creative act releases the latent possibilities within it. Since this metal could as easily have been used as a weapon (i.e. to hurt others), making it into something that gives light and spirituality to the world releases its holy sparks. Similarly, if one uses money for a holy purpose - like tzedaka - such that the use of that money is Godly, its nitzotzot may be released.

Another example is an ordinary apple. If I take the apple - naturally grown and ripened - and say a blessing over it, I might succeed in raising the "nitzotzot" of holiness within the apple. Since the apple was created to sustain the humans who serve and partner with God in this world, when a partner or servant of God takes the apple, acknowledges his holy purpose in life, thanks God for it and then eats it, it has been fulfilled in its task. Its holy energy rises up to sustain the cosmos. Had the apple, instead, fallen to the ground and rotted, its sparks would not have been released and would have passed onwards into another phase of existence, still waiting, as we all are, to be redeemed.

One way to view it is kind of like spiritual recycling. Each spark was once free, but has become trapped in the dross of reality. We just have to find a way to get it back out. When I was a kid, I used to help my uncle break down scrap for his business. We used to sit together and watch football while stripping down photo negatives. Each photo has a certain amount of silver (halide) in it and if we took off all the tape and paper and collected just the negative image, the silver could be processed and removed from it. Every object in the world has a certain amount of good in it and if you take off all the window dressings and use it in its proper way, you can tease out its silver.

From a kabbalistic perspective, a person could and should spend their life searching out these nitzotzot and doing what they can to raise them up. Each mitzva is an opportunity to add a spark of holiness to the world, from giving tzedaka to a homeless man, to reciting the daily prayers, to teaching your children how to read, to holding the door open for the person behind you. Needless to say, an ambitious person could find this exhausting, for there is no end to the littered sparks of holiness as there is no end to the grains of sand on the beach.

This is true of human beings as well. One of the main benefits of being challenged in our lives is the ability to discover within ourselves our own nitzotzot, the potential that inheres within us. Every person has the ability to fully express themselves and their abilities, but only under the right conditions and with the right intentions. Every person has the ability - perhaps a thousand times a day - to do good, evil or something in between. The more we are releasing the holy sparks in the objects around us, the more we are releasing our own. The more good we bring into the world -- the more we partner with God in our own destinies -- the greater our own spiritual fireworks. On the flipside, when we betray ourselves, make bad decisions, hurt others, or don't use our power to do good, we dig the sparks deeper underground, cover them and obscure them from view.

This idea is also found in the work of our forefather Yitzchak in this week's sidra (weekly Torah reading). In his earlier years, Avraham had traveled to the land of Gerar (in the south of Israel) and had dug a number of wells (see 21:30-33) that had subsequently been filled up by the jealous Philistines.[1] When Yitzchak follows in his father's footsteps, the Torah records:

"And all the wells that his father's servants had dug in the time of his father Avraham had been sealed up buy the Philistines and filled with dirt. ...And Yitzchak returned and he dug out the wells of water that hey had dug in the days of Avraham his father and the Philistines had sealed up after Avraham's death and he called them the same names as his father had called them." (Genesis 26:18-22)

Though the mystical reading of these verses is quite complex and technical, the basic idea, as expressed by Chassidic commentators, is that the Torah is stressing that when we follow in the footsteps of Avraham, we "dig wells" to find "water", that is, we search to find divinity in the world through Torah and mitzvot. The Philistines filling in the wells represent the forces in this world - ranging from carelessness to senseless anger to outright evil - that seek to fill in the wells we have dug. Yitzchak teaches us that we have to always keep digging out the wells that our fathers have dug for us. Just because we have dug a well yesterday does not mean we won't have to dig it again. Searching for the life-giving water of Torah and spirituality is not an occasional act, but a habit and a discipline. We always have to keep digging. Searching for the holy sparks is a quest that renews itself each day and requires us to keep looking, keep improving, keep doing our repair work on this world that is sometimes clouded over with evil, hopelessness or despair.

So, as we walk down the street, we should have our eyes open, like Uriel, for the "magicals", the nitzotzot, the sources of 'water'. They are everywhere all around us and we can open up any free magazine box and find them. If we looked correctly, we could find those nitzotzot in every person and in every object we encounter. May we be as happy to find them and share them as Uriel is. Shabbat shalom!

[1] I always think of this Biblical story when I think about how the modern-day namesakes of the Philistines - the Palestinians - destroyed all the Jewish greenhouses of Gush Katif after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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